Tuesday, June 05, 2018

'Very Near Fuddled'

One of the joys of reading Samuel Pepys, and reading him not as fodder for a thesis in Restoration history but as our representative to an interesting time and place we will never fully comprehend, is not quite knowing how seriously he takes himself. It’s easy to read him, as many have, as a dutiful diary-keeper, logging life’s minutiae like an unreflective drudge. With that assumption, we underestimate our man. Here, for instance, is some of what Pepys was writing on this date, June 5, in 1661:

“So home Sir William and I, and it being very hot weather I took my flageolette and played upon the leads in the garden, where Sir W. Pen came out in his shirt into his leads, and there we staid talking and singing, and drinking great drafts of claret, and eating botargo and bread and butter till 12 at night, it being moonshine; and so to bed, very near fuddled.”

Did you see the wink in his eye? Pepys is serious about his pleasures, almost a hedonist but for his dedication as a naval administrator and Member of Parliament. Guiltlessly, he enjoys food, drink, music and sex. Botargo is savory poor man’s caviar. “Very near fuddled [OED: ‘intoxicated; also, muddled’]” gives it away.
Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces (trans. Clare Cavanagh, 2002) is a collection of book reviews written for the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborczaby by the late poet WisÅ‚awa Szymborska. In 1978 she read and reviewed the fourth edition of the two-volume translation into Polish of Pepys’ Diary by Maria Dabrowska. (There’s a story: Why would a prominent Polish novelist choose to translate Pepys, of all people?) She writes: “It’s wonderful partly because its author was writing for himself and wasn’t worried about whether it was wonderful or not.” Rereading Pepys after many years, she reevaluates him:

“Up until yesterday I was convinced that his humor was absolutely unintentional. Today I don’t know. Maybe his jokes were conscious after all; perhaps he’s mocking himself and his purported success in higher circles. And it’s a critical difference: are we laughing at the author or with him, behind his back or to his face, against or in accord with his intentions?”

It’s foolish to underestimate the wit of almost any writer (Noam Chomsky is an exception), particularly one removed from us by 350 years. Smugness quickly takes over. Even Szymborska, our contemporary, should be read with an ear for irony and nuance. She asks interesting questions:

“How should we approach old texts? How can we avoid reading them with an indulgent, superior smile that they may not deserve? Especially when the author is not noted for his wit and only manages to crack a joke now and then. . . . Generally speaking the passage of time creates especially bad acoustical conditions for humor. I suspect there are untold victims among individual words, sentences, passages, and even entire works.”

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